I have been told that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it. That’s as true for Christians as it is for anyone else. And I’ve come across some words over the years that will help you with that 90% part. These are words that have shaped my response to the hard things I’ve faced. Given the right attention, they can revolutionize your approach to suffering. Rather than running from hard things, you can run through them, knowing how your soul is benefiting in the process.
“Exile is the worst that reveals the best.” — Eugene Peterson
Eugene Peterson noted a striking statement from the novelist William Faulkner. “Disaster seems to be good for people.” That’s not something you hear everyday. Why would he say that? And why would Peterson say that exile — the forced removal from comfort, prosperity, and home — reveals “the best”?
He’d say that because suffering forces us to re-prioritize. It knocks down our block tower, and then we have to start building all over again. But with new building comes the opportunity to make sure we truly have the blocks where we want them. For many of us, having a relationship with God and our sights set on eternity aren’t (if we’re honest) default priorities. We’re easily distracted, trading the greatest love for lesser loves. But with suffering, with exile, we see the greatest love again. We see the face of God (though it’s hard to stare into), as much of a face as we’ll see on this side of paradise. And God calls us to stare at him. To keep staring at him. To always stare at him.
Without the pain and discomfort of our myriad exiles and hardships, we’d never re-prioritize. And we’d waste time on things that aren’t so important.
“Your suffering is more powerfully shaped by what’s in your heart than by what’s in your body or in the world around you.” — Paul David Tripp
We tend to think that suffering is something that happens to us. And that’s true. But it’s also something that happens in us. Our experience of suffering looks wildly different based on where we are spiritually when we suffer.
What do we most long for? What takes up our attention? Who are we most concerned about? (Often “myself” is the answer.) What do we expect from God? What do we think is “fair” or “just”? Where are we crippled by sin? How bright is the flame of our hope? These are questions that get at what’s going on inside us. And when we meet suffering, we need to think not just about what’s happening to us, but about what’s happening in us, and how the inside needs to change and grow and develop. The inside is always bringing a caravan with it to meet the outside.
“Ease and comfort are not catalysts for change; they’re invitations to sameness.”
Okay, these are my words, but hear me out before you roll your eyes. I’d be the first to admit that any truthful words I write are gifts of the Spirit. All truth is God’s truth. So, I offer these not as a testament to my own wisdom but to the grace of God who always teaches us. He just happens to teach me through giving me words to write, so I’m offering those back to you.
I’ve battled grief from my late father’s early death, hopelessness from a crippling anxiety disorder, and assaults from a daily onslaught of self-doubt. What I’ve realized is simple: whenever I’m not dealing with suffering in one of these areas, I’m not growing. I’m staying the same. Or, worse yet, I’m drifting towards those lesser loves I noted above.
We stretch out our hands and hearts to grasp ease and comfort, especially in the West. What we don’t seem to realize is that when we get those things, we seldom change or develop. We just stay the same. We need hard things to break us out of the molds we form for ourselves, to help us grow into something, someone, greater. That must have been what Faulkner meant when he said that disaster seems to be good for people. Disaster isn’t ever good in itself, but it can be good for people.
When rehearsed regularly, these quotations have the power to revolutionize your approach to suffering right now. We live in a world governed by God, and God is working all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28). That doesn’t mean that all things are good. It just means that good will come from them. And if we truly believe that, then we’ll be able to walk through suffering with confidence that God is up to something. He always is.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs is a Christian author and teacher. He’s written several books, most recently Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety and Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering. To receive free downloads and communication from the author, click HERE.